Ain't Leith Grand: LeithLate Turns Six

LeithLate producer Morvern Cunningham and commisioned artist Rabiya Choudhry talk LeithLate '16, the arts and making money

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Jun 2016

In 1920, citizens of Leith were invited to take part in a referendum on whether to join Edinburgh. They voted no, but nevertheless were swallowed by the capital and given Leith theatre as a kind of consolatory gift, LeithLate Event Coordinator and Festival Producer Morvern Cunningham tells us. 

This month, on the night of the latest referendum to come to Leith, last minute voters making the big EU decision will be joined on the street by artcrawlers on Thursday 23 June. That’s when art festival LeithLate – for the sixth year running – does its annual takeover of local shops and the street to begin its four-day programme of exhibitions and events.

Thinking of her own relationship with Leith, it was here that Cunningham moved after graduating, to an area of “low rent studios and grassroots art spaces, and that’s how LeithLate came about. It showcases the creativity that’s going on in this part of town.”

Now in its sixth year, the festival has gone from a one-night event to last year’s four month edition, and is now in a Thursday to Sunday slot. For Cunningham, the idea is to extend “the fun of an opening, using local business and putting site-specific work into the spaces.” 

Building the festival around one big opening night, and condensing it to four days is intended to bring “the bigger crowd to come all at once,” rather than being dispersed across months of activities. Cunningham is cautious that this might be a good strategy for LeithLate, but then jokes that for the Edinburgh Festival, “if everyone turned up on the same night Edinburgh would disappear into its own volcano.”

Bringing in live music is also an important part of LeithLate, so there are performances on the Thursday from country duo Bear Necessities and The Joker and the Thief, Hailey Beavis, Nice Church and Carbs (the name of Jamie Scott and Jonnie Common’s project) and on Sunday, The Previous Penny Pluckers.

Going beyond the galleries like this, “It’s not just an art crowd, and it’s not just a music crowd either. There’s also poetry and spoken word involved as well. We’re mixing these audiences up and putting people in places they haven’t been in before.”

Thinking more about the rationale of LeithLate, Cunningham was reminded during a chat with exhibiting artist Ian Gouldstein of an old video game Faxanadu. One of the first video games with save points, it was “vast. When you went to a village you’d go into every shop because you’d want to know what’s in there, what they sold, if they could give you something or maybe you could find a tool for your quest.”

Bringing in the analogy, “That’s not how we operate in everyday life. You could live on Leith Walk and not have been in half the shops and pubs, not knowing what goes on inside them – maybe being afraid and having these grey areas in your local knowledge.”

It’s for this reason that Ian Gouldstein’s commission will be in the front window of Pat’s Chung Ying Chinese supermarket. He’ll be displaying one of his video game inspired animations of lots of little characters. “He wants them to be quite stationary, then every now and again to do something special.” In the window, he’d like to use “stock from the supermarket” to dress the installation and have “people questioning if it’s for sale.”

Including London-based Gouldstein in the programme came out of a visit by Cunningham to Deptford in London. Also an old dock town, there’s a similar series of events as LeithLate, though it’s now in its 20s and the longest running contemporary art festival in London. “We’d just got the okay from Creative Scotland to visit the White Nights in Paris, then I thought, actually can we just go to Deptford.” It was the right decision, and has been the start of a productive twinning of the two organisations. 

Thinking of Gouldstein’s work brings out a trend for LeithLate ’16 that wasn’t entirely intentional, “that just came about in an organic way which is nice.” That’s to say, there’s a prominence of digital work, which as well as being present in Gouldstein’s contribution, is also in another commissioned part of the programme by the Dennis and Debbie Club. For their work The Improvement of Invalid Youth, they will set up “a multi-projection audio-visual installation revisiting the history of the Gayfield Creative Spaces site.”

Another accidental theme is work that is gifted to the audience to take away. For instance, sculptor Julianna Capes is presenting a “suite of street works around the theme of luck.” This includes the “piece Annul which is made up of coppers put in the cracks in pavement. She says people always take them, but she always wanted that.” Also giving souvenirs to visitors, in Settlement Projects, there is a poster exhibition with free zines from the Poor Art Collective.

Continuing the giveaway, painter Rabiya Choudhry has designed a special banknote for the occasion. About the size of a tenner, along with Cunningham they’ve planned a print run of a few thousand to be distributed to visitors for free. 

Joining in the conversation, Choudhry looks back on how her interest in drawing money came about. On a cycle of working jobs to get by, then taking time off when possible to focus on her practice, she remembers, “‘I started painting fivers and swapping them with friends (normally for drinks), and did quite well.” Having a laugh about how it came about, Choudhry mentions, “Things always start as fun for me, but digging deeper there’s always another side.”

For one, she thinks about the misunderstanding that’s come up lately when she’s been asked how her art’s going while she’s been making the LeithLate commission. “I tell people I’m making money, and people say ‘That’s great’. They take it literally.” Thinking more generally, “when you’re making money [literally] out of art, people treat you differently. How it’s more valued economically.”

The actual note will be decorated with bananas, which came out of casual conversation between Choudhry and Cunningham. “They’re loaded symbolically,” and have connections to the risograph printing process (which is used to make Choudhry’s note and whose paper is called “banana paper”), as well as the banana flats in Leith. In this way, “work is always like a journey through symbols to get to the destination of an artwork.” Giving an insight into this process, in the LeithLate ’16 hub the Out of the Blue Drill Hall will host some of the miniature drawings and gouache paintings Choudhry has made in preparation for the final print.

For Choudhry, LeithLate’s a way of “building a bridge.” Cunningham continues the thought – “Hopefully what Leithlate does is break down the boundaries between old and new Leith. So you don’t have to be an art person to come, but you don’t have to be local either. Find something or somewhere maybe you’ll go to again, look closer at the environment. It’s about getting in amongst it, getting in about it, putting something on people’s radar they’re blind to in everyday life.” 

LeithLate 2016, 23-26 Jun